Queens of Sheba
Jessica Hagan, adapted by Ryan Calais Cameron
Nouveau Riche and Omnibus Theatre
Battersea Arts Centre
The audience laughed a good deal at the witty, fast moving performance of Queens of Sheba that mixes conversational poetic stories, with dance and a cappella singing of extracts from songs by Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and others.
It opens quietly with a black woman standing alone before a mirror, tears running down her cheek as she looks anxiously at the colour of her skin, at her shape. Her thoughts are interrupted by three other black women singing the need for “just a little bit of respect.” Why they make that demand is illustrated by the well-performed, very entertaining sequence that follows.
There is the workplace where she learns to “nod and smile”, to “switch off my intellect to switch on theirs” and to try not to appear “too aggressive or too passive.” After all, the boss points out, it is the company ethos to smile, while forgetting to mention it might also be company ethos not to comment on the colour of skin. Never mind those other trivial things, like the questions about hair, about where she comes from and whether she can twerp.
Of course, she realises the tinder date with a white man was a mistake when he tells her, "I only date exotic women," and comes up with that irritating question about where she comes from. "I say I am a mix of both racism and sexism—they lay equally on my skin. Passed down unknowingly by my next of kin".
But then going out can often be a hassle. There was the time which inspired this show, when a group of black women were turned away from a night club with the words, “your team are too dark honey. Sorry.”
If the hassle over skin colour isn’t enough, there is the additional pain inflicted by black males.
Speaking of hip-hop, they say, “I am in love with a sound that lifts me up and lyrics that tear me down”.
There are hilarious glimpses of the very laddish physical approach and pick-up lines of some black males that had even the previously gloomy looking black male sitting beside me suddenly break into a smile of recognition.
But this combination of racism and sexism, that they refer to as misogynoir, takes its toll, leading them to say, “tell me how I can be outwardly tall and inwardly bent” and to wonder, “if I cry twice a day, will my skin eventually fade or will the dark black on my face remain?”
This is a remarkably fine show that you wish everybody could see.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna